I suggested in my review of 'Late Eclipses', (click here for the review) the prior book in Seanan McGuire's 'October Daye' series, that the author had finally become comfortable with her writing and her characters and was now both ready and able to move the whole of Toby's world forward, rather than just adding little bits here and there as sequels in different locations. I'd call 'One Salt Sea', the fifth book in the series, an emphatic underline to that suggestion.
It's easily the best Toby Daye so far and the last seventy or so pages are truly wonderful, precisely what I want from this series. They took me on a rollercoaster, wrapping up a whole slew of storylines with style, never feeling forced when doing so, and setting a whole bunch more into motion. McGuire really tweaks the emotions too, manipulating us and her characters both without ever seeming manipulative. The end to this book is the best writing I've seen McGuire do and it's absolutely first rate.
The only real catch is that many will see 'One Salt Sea' as a whodunit, not least because the back cover is rather careful to avoid telling us who's behind everything, but it really isn't. McGuire has no intention of keeping us in suspense and so lets us in on the secret almost immediately. War is returning to Faerie, as someone has kidnapped the two sons of the Duchess of Saltmist, a duchy at the bottom of the sea off the San Francisco coast, and that someone is quite obviously Rayseline Torquill, the mad daughter of Toby's liege, Duke Sylvester, who vanished at the end of the last book.
What we really have here is an exploration of everything McGuire has built, with fascinating extensions, all wrapped up in Toby's quest to find Raysel. We know she's going to, because this isn't the last novel in the series and that subplot can't be milked forever, but we don't know how she's going to, never mind what she'll have to do and give and endure to reach that goal.
And, of course, other questions are wide open. Will she find the two sons of Saltmist alive? Will she stop the war? Who else is involved? Who will Toby need to get involved? What other left turns is McGuire going to force her into? All we really know is that Raysel is mad and so is the Queen of the Mists, the land power in San Francisco, who is more than happy to blunder into a war that she doesn't know she can't win.
This is because there's not a heck of a lot of traffic between the land and the sea, perhaps understandable when we think about how easy it isn't for mermaids to walk on land. But the land duchies don't think too much further about what might be down there and neither do we, until we accompany a magically transformed Toby down to the bottom of the sea to visit Dianda Lorden, the Duchess of Saltmist, and her husband, Patrick, who was land-born.
It's a fantastic duchy and it ably highlights that Faerie is a frickin' huge place and that we've only taken a brief glimpse at it thus far. What we see in Saltmist is wild and wonderful, not just a land duchy under the water but something that grew up on its own following different philosophy and different biology. Floors can be on walls if the fae who use them are more like fish (or octopi) than human beings. We know about selkies because we've met a few, not least Connor, who is back with Toby following Raysel's disappearance, but even Toby is surprised by cephali, hippocampi and cetacea.
Then again, we shouldn't be too surprised at their surprise. Those in power at Shadowed Hills, including her parents, didn't have a clue what Raysel was doing even in her own rooms. If the scenes in Saltmist are eye-opening because of their different concepts of beauty, the scenes in Raysel's rooms are eye-opening for other reasons. We actually start to feel for the crazy lady, because we see the effects on her of the loss of childhood and the experiences she must have gone through while kidnapped. McGuire fleshes out quite a few of her prior characters to amazing degrees here.
Another is the Luidaeg, the most eccentric character thus far in a world of eccentricity. I've always liked the firstborn sea witch but I've known that we haven't scratched the surface of who she is. We do some scratching here but it's McGuire's writing that really brings her to life. As those last seventy pages begin, we start to realise a few inalienable facts about her, not just that she's incredibly powerful but that she's incredibly powerful in ways that we can't understand with the knowledge we've been given. She's special here, unknowable, truly other and worthy of the fear that she seems to generate in everyone.
And, while I could happily rave about those last seventy pages for many more words than this review is going to contain, I should emphasise that the rest of the book is pretty damn good too. We learn bits and pieces almost in passing as we move quickly forward, the book only taking a couple of days to unfold. We see Toby the tomboy dress up in a spider-silk dress, then avert an assassination attempted with an arrow laced with elfshot, a substance that sends the fae into century-long slumber. We find that Tybalt, the King of Cats, despises driving or being driven, though he's old enough to not have grown up with cars and powerful enough to not need them. We find that Quentin has become Toby's squire and his outlook is already different to the other pages being trained in Shadowed Hills.
And, of course, we see fantastic set pieces of action that would be truly spectacular if adapted properly to film. My favourite sentence in this novel is this one:
'Hopefully, anyone who saw a woman riding a screaming mermaid in a wheelchair down Leavenworth at a quarter to five in the morning would just think they'd had too much to drink.'
That's what television should be. This series of books could be translated relatively easily to a modern TV format and it could be done very well indeed, though Saltmist would surely take some work! The more it runs on, the more visual the series becomes and, this time out, I watched the action unfold in my head as much as I read it, right down to truly odd scenes like those with Danny the bridge troll taxi driver talking to rocks. Yes, that's what it sounds like but it's important.
Part of the magic of the last seventy pages is that McGuire also drops a whole bunch of other things that may or may not be important. Are they here to set up future events or only to build the Luidaeg in ways that are long overdue? I want to know about the towers, whose falling made those rocks cry; the gates of Tirn Aill; and the betrayal of the Roane. I won't spoil but I will say that only one of those three is given a good explanation here and, even then, it's surely setting up something we'll read about in a further novel.
The 'October Daye' books were Seanan McGuire's first series, beginning with her debut novel, 'Rosemary and Rue'. However, I read the 'InCryptid' books first and it's only here that I can acknowledge that Toby's world is deeper and more substantial. It always should have been, of course, but it hadn't felt like it until now. I have to admit to reading the Toby Dayes on the side while waiting for McGuire to get around to an Antimony Price 'InCryptid' novel (which she finally has), but now I'm just as eager to stay with Daye.
'One Salt Sea', especially its last seventy pages, ably highlights why Toby Daye is still her primary project, with book eleven due in a few months and two more already announced for succeeding Septembers. See you next month for 'Ashes of Honor'. ~~ Hal C F Astell